[Note: a friend informed me that Thumbelina wasn’t actually done by Disney but by Don Bluth. I’m leaving it in because I feel like most animated movies of this style tend to get the same attitude, even if they’re not strictly Disney]
Disney’s Frozen is getting a ton of attention right now, and as with almost every single one of their other movies, the critics are having a field day. I’m counting down to how long it takes someone to find “sex” written in the frost dust coming from Elsa’s hands in “Let it Go.” The song has already been accused of promoting a gay agenda, despite the fact that it has more to do with being alone than with any hint of romance. And of course, even though Disney has made huge strides in offering up a more diverse version of the princess fairy tale, there are those who think Frozen is a failure because it wasn’t quite perfect enough.
I laugh whenever the critics come out to play. It tickles me to try to find all the secret subliminal messages people claim are hidden in movies and amuses me only slightly less to hear the never-ending complaints about the horrible morals, standards, and overall role models Disney princesses present. I get it–when you’re watching a kid’s movie, it’s easy to find fault with all the little elements that suddenly seem so loud, and when your fixated on something like sex, you see it everywhere, regardless of whether it’s actually there. Disney is hardly the worst offender as far as unhealthy media goes, but you wouldn’t know that with the way the love-to-haters talk. The problem with taking easy shots at Disney is that, by refusing to acknowledge where there is good as well as bad, it makes even the legitimate concerns seem petty.
It’s not that Disney doesn’t have concerning elements. It’s true that the movies tend to present an unrealistic view of love, making a wedding or kiss the grand closing more often than not. It’s also true that they seem to be stuck in one Princess body-type and that sometimes they sexualize stories that don’t need it (ahem, Pocahontas). However, I have always found Disney movies to hold more empowering and inspiring messages than either the conservative or liberal critics want to admit. Here are just a few of the lessons I got from Disney as a child and as an adult:
Dreams are worth pursuing
A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you’re fast asleep.
In dreams you can lose your heartache;
Whatever you wish for, you keep. –Cinderella
From Cinderella to the Princess and the Frog, pursuing one’s dreams is one of the consistent themes in most Disney movies. It’s easy to get distracted by the fact that, for many of the princesses, their dream is to find love, but then again, I don’t necessarily think love is such a horrible dream—it’s just presented a bit myopically most of the time.
That being said, the dream songs always make me cry because they remind me that no matter where you are in life—poor, sheltered, outcast, revered, confused, cursed, or just plain bored—you are allowed to define your own desires for your life and to pursue them to the best of your ability.
Tiana surveying the building for her restaurant, from The Princess and the Frog. 2009
You are your own best guide
If the choosing gets confusing,
Maybe it’s the map you’re using.
You don’t need a chart to guide you.
Close your eyes and look inside you! –Jacquimo in Thumbelina
I love that Disney characters rely on their intuition and heart to guide them. They may not always make the right choices, but they own their own decisions and stand up for what they believe is right. They are faced with some pretty tough choices, juggling the desires of their families with their own internal needs and beliefs. That’s pretty damn mature, even when they screw things up royally.
Mulan discovered to be a girl impersonating a boy, from Mulan 1998
Marrying for the wrong reasons isn’t worth it
How dare you, all of you! Standing around deciding my future?! I am not a prize to be won! –Jasmine in Aladdin
For all the criticism that Disney receives about teaching girls that marriage is the goal of every story, I’ve never heard anyone praise Disney for the way they consistently discourage marriage for wealth, to please family, or to fulfill duty. Their princesses may get married in the end, but they often start out refusing to get married to someone they don’t love. Let’s celebrate that Elsa and Merida don’t even need love interests at the end of their stories, but let’s also give a shout out to Aurora, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Belle, and Mulan for taking a stand against being pressured into marriage.
Jasmine holding the scraps of a suitors clothing, from Aladdin 1992
Love transcends societal lines
New and a bit alarming
Who’d have ever thought that this could be?
True that he’s no prince charming
But there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see. –Belle from Beauty and the Beast
Robin Hood and Maid Marion, Belle and the Beast, Ariel and Eric, Jasmine and Aladdin, Cinderella and Charming, Pocahontas and John Smith, Tod and Copper, Tarzan and Jane, Quazimodo and Esmerelda…what do they all have in common? Their connection to each other overcame their societal “stations.” So many of the stories that Disney writes are stories of forbidden connections, and one of their consistently admirable themes is that love has the power to overcome prejudice and cultural obstacles. Note, not all of these are even about romances. Some of them are friendships.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
Being different doesn’t make you bad
Thumbelina: I must be the only little person in the world. I wish I were big
Mother: Oh, no, Thumbelina. No. Don’t ever wish to be anything but what you are.–From Thumbelina
Yes, Disney does tend to reinforce stereotypical beauty standards with most of their protagonists, but I think they also have a pretty good track record of affirming that difference doesn’t make you bad. Elsa is definitely my favorite misunderstood “villain” at the moment, but the Beat is also a great example of a character who was assumed by everyone to be evil because he was so different but who turned out to be far more civilized than the other people who were “normal.” Let’s not forget Dumbo, Pinocchio, Quasimodo, Thumbelina, and Lilo who all struggled with feeling different.
Who is the real monster in Beauty and the Beast? 1991
You are more than your body
You’ll have your looks, your pretty face.
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha! –Ursula from The Little Mermaid
Let’s face it, Eric didn’t fall in love with Ariel’s body. Despite the fact that Ursula tried to convince Ariel that all she needed was her looks, it was her voice, not her body, that Eric had fallen for. And Ursula didn’t entrap him with her beauty; she entrapped him by impersonating Ariel singing.
Ariel’s voice trapped in Ursula’s necklace from The Little Mermaid 1989
Your family doesn’t get to define you
Mother knows best
Listen to your mother
It’s a scary world out there. –Mother Gothel in Rapunzel
There’s a pretty consistent family model that comes out in many Disney movies—the overbearing, often abusive parent/step-parent who tries to hold the protagonist back and force her into conformity with rules (or just outright kill her). Perhaps the reason that I don’t find the love themes as problematic as some is because I see the lack of love the protagonists have in their home lives. From Cinderella being forced into slavery to her family to Rapunzel being isolated from the rest of the world, these girls are often dealing with unloving, dysfunctional situations, yet they refuse to allow their home lives to determine what love or freedom should look like. To me, it’s less a story of a character falling in love with someone she has barely met as it is a story about a character realizing that love is possible for her and that she can get out of the horrible place she’s been confined to her whole life.
Can you really blame Cinderella for wanting to marry a man she had danced with only once when she was a slave to her stepmother? Cinderella 1950
It’s become almost fashionable to hate Disney. I’ve been told my whole life that I should hate Disney, for liberal and conservative reasons. Although I agree with some of the concerns that others have shared, for the most part I think that people see what they want to see in Disney movies. Sometimes the criticisms start before anyone has even had a chance to consider what is being criticized. Disney is an easy target for those who want an “other” to blame for the corruption of children, but here is at least one child who learned independence and resilience from watching them over and over.